Moral licensing is a tendency to justify our current poor actions using previous good behavior.
“I will definitely stop partying often starting next month”, said Amy. Now since the next month was 1 week away, Amy decided she must party every day before giving up on the fun in a few days.
Whether Amy stopped her partying habits in the next month is a different question altogether. But have you justified your current bad behavior or actions based on past or future good action?
Such behavior is common for new year resolutions such as quitting smoking or drinking and working out. Such a human thought process is called moral licensing.
- What is moral licensing?
- Why do you morally license yourself?
- Studies and experiments conducted
- Examples of moral licensing in daily life
- How to stop moral licensing?
What is moral licensing?
As per psychology, moral licensing is the process of fooling ourselves to justify bad behavior using other good behavior. The effect causes people who exhibit good behavior initially to later perform dishonest, unethical, or bad actions later on. Some call the behavior self-licensing.
As per the theory, the phenomenon manifests in two ways:
1. Your past good actions warranting current bad actions:
After completing a positive action, you feel you have the license to do something bad. For example, if you started working out today, you believe you can eat a pizza for dinner. Your good behavior prompts you to do something problematic because you believe you deserve it.
2. Your future plans justifying the current behavior
When you make a plan to stop a bad habit or cultivate a good habit, you believe you can over-indulge in bad behavior until you begin.
For example, if you plan to start eating healthy next month, you believe you can binge eat till then. You find yourself worthy of a treat because you assume you will burn all the calories soon.
The future plan of adhering to good behavior turns into a license to indulge in bad behavior right now.
Why do you morally license yourself?
When you are about to perform an act that goes against your will, your ego takes a beating. You hunt for a reason to preserve your image in your own eyes. As strange as it seems, you feel the need to justify your actions to yourself. No one is watching you but your brain feels the need to preserve the good image you have.
When you find a reason to justify your action, you fool yourself into believing that your logic makes sense.
In some cases, you know that your behavior is unethical but yet you ignore it. In some other cases, you truly believe that your behavior is justified. The examples below will clarify the point.
Studies and experiments conducted
Several studies have shown how well known public figures have displayed behavior that contradicted what they preached.
Louis C.K, who was a hit among the feminist liberals, was accused by five women of sexual harassment. Harvey Weinstein, who had donated millions towards feminist studies had allegations of sexual assault. Many other people fall into the same bucket.
Studies have also shown how people who express disagreement over sexist hiring have a higher chance of selecting a guy for a male-dominated job. People who expressed their support for Obama as the President have displayed acts of racism in their lives.
Once people have carried out deeds of virtue, they feel their unethical behavior is justified. The good acts trigger a rebound.
Examples of moral licensing in daily life
You and I fall victim to such behavior in our daily life without our knowledge. Here are some examples:
1. Completing a task and taking a break
When you have a long list of things to do, what do you do after completing one important task? You feel you deserve a break.
You pull your phone out, open Instagram or watch Youtube videos for the next 20 minutes. If you are an outgoing person, you might wander off on a long coffee break talking to all the co-workers on the floor.
Overall, you end up spending more time on breaks than the tasks itself.
Completing a difficult task serves as a license to waste time before starting another task.
2. Cutting down one habit and increasing another
When you cut down one bad habit, you self permit yourself to increase the frequency of another. After a certain point, you return to both bad habits with increased frequency.
Let us assume you are a young guy in your mid 20’s who likes to smoke daily and party on the weekends. One day, you look at the impact of bad habits on your health and target to quit smoking. You believe that drinking can linger on because the damage is less severe.
During the first few days of quitting smoking, you believe you can reward yourself with a couple of pints of beer. This goes on for a few days before your willpower gives up and you start smoking again.
The problem now is, you now have cultivated the habit of a few pints every day too. Not only do you smoke like before but have also added alcohol to the tally.
3. Overindulging in bad habits before a specific date
When you decide to quit a bad habit, you set a date for yourself to begin. For example, if today is the 15th of the month, you tell yourself, “I will stop drinking aerated beverages and cut down sugary food starting next month.”
The plan is a great step forward and you know it. The problem lies in the remaining 15 days of the month.
What do you do when you know you are quitting sugar in 2 weeks? You binge on them for the next 2 weeks thinking you will not have the opportunity to relish them again.
The next month arrives and you cut your sugar for a day or two. In no time, you return to your old cravings along with an extra layer of fat you accumulated due to overeating of the last couple of weeks.
4. Eating unhealthy because you started working out
When you start working out, you believe you burnt a lot of calories and you deserve a treat. You pick your favorite food on the way back from the gym and much on it feeling proud of yourself for doing a great job.
Such habits can nullify your efforts in the gym or even make it worse. An hour of moderate cycling burns about 450 calories. A pint of ice cream has 400 calories, 10 oreo biscuits contain 500 calories and a KFC burger is load over 550 calories.
So, if you give yourself such treats after working out, you might grow your belly grows thicker instead of your biceps.
5. Spending after saving
When you realize you need to save money, you make a plan to cut down your expenses. You start scanning your grocery list to identify where you can reduce the bill. You head out to the supermarket and come back with a cart that costs less than your usual bill.
On the way out of the mall, you walk by a sunglasses store. Since you saved some money from your grocery shopping, you believe you can buy a pair of shiny black sunglasses. Overall, you end up with the bigger hole in your pocket.
Saving money in one area can lead to a higher expense in another. Saving pennies can turn into an excuse to splurge pounds right under your nose.
Such behavior is influenced by the environment too. You have higher chances of spending when you walk in a mall than when you’re at home.
6. Blowing money which you won unexpectedly
What happens to the people who win a lottery? Stories have shown how most people go back to their old state of financial affairs after a big win.
The extra money in their account becomes a reason to go on a trip around the world, buy a lavish sports car and replace the furniture in the house. The same applies to people who visit casinos and earn money with some form of betting.
But you think you’re safe because you have never won a lottery and you do not have the habit of gambling. You think?
What do you do with the bonus you earn every year? Many believe that the bonus serves as extra money to spend on needless expenses.
If you think of it again, once the bonus hits your account it is no different from your salary. Yet, you view your bonus as a standalone pile of money that you have the license to spend.
How to stop moral licensing?
Stopping yourself from the effect of moral licensing is impossible. No matter how self-aware you are, you will slip without your notice sooner or later. Your goal must only be to reduce the effect, not eliminate it altogether.
Here are 3 ways you can stop moral licensing from influencing your bad behavior and habits:
1. Use the 2-second rule of receive pause respond
Whenever you are about to indulge in bad behavior or stray away from the good, pause for a moment to apply the 2-second rule. The small break of just 1 or 2 seconds can cut your current line of thought.
Human beings have two ways they react to a situation. One works by instinct or intuition, where you take an action quickly. The second method uses your logical brain which applies conscious thought.
For many reactions, your brain works on instinct which comes to a decision quickly. Many a time, such an impulsive decision is flawed. Using a pause help bring the logical brain into the picture. Here is how you can do it:
Ask yourself if the behavior you are about to exhibit is in line with your self-image and the person you dream of becoming.
Ask yourself if you can make an exception today and get back to your routine tomorrow. For example, if you have a lifestyle of healthy eating, picking a jelly-filled chocolate donut once in a while does no harm. However, if you were a chain smoker who quit smoking a few months back, lighting up one cigarette can trigger your old habit.
Use your best judgment based on the scenario. Your intuition will tell you the right answer.
2. Ask yourself if you’re under the influence of moral licensing
As silly as it sounds, you can ask yourself if you are under the influence of the phenomenon. The sneakiest trick of moral licensing is your ignorance about the effect. Once you know how the effect can influence you, you can spot it in yourself and refrain from unwanted behavior.
Now that you know you’re fooling yourself by eating a bar of chocolate after the gym, you know you’re giving yourself a false excuse.
As simple as the method sounds, it works because many a time you are fooling yourself and you know it. But you do not want to accept it. When you ask yourself the question, you will have a hard time lying to yourself.
3. Do not frame your behavior as good or bad
You often make wrong judgments on what is good or bad. Your mental biases, your state of mind, the situation and your beliefs have a strong influence on your decisions. Instead of tagging your next action as good or bad, think of the goal it effects. If your actions help the goal, proceed to do it. If not, drop it.
For example, on your way back from the gym, a donut seems like good behavior for working out. If you ask yourself, does it help your goal of losing weight, you know it wouldn’t. Before buying a pair of sunglasses from the money saved from grocery, ponder over how the decision impacts your goal of saving money.
A small shift from your definition of good or bad to the goal in question, helps you make the right choice.
Moral licensing is quite common. If you know nothing about the effect, you fool yourself time and again. Once you learn how it works, you can tame the effect in most cases. But many people do not admit exhibiting such behavior. Flaws are easy to spot in others but difficult to identify in ourselves.
Moral licensing is nothing other than lying to yourself and believing it. If you remain humble enough to accept your mistakes, you win the battle.
I hope you found this article useful. Leave a comment about an instance where you morally licensed yourself and how you can prevent it the next time.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.